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Midterm elections will only go so far in ensuring policy gains for abortion rights


With the Dobbs ruling last month that overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion rights will probably be a motivating force for Democrats in this year's midterm elections. But even if the party wins some seats, the policy gains may be modest and simply amount to holding the line against further abortion restrictions. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Rallies for abortion rights often are packed with young activists, as was a recent one in Kenosha, Wis. But that's also where I met Lorraine.

LORRAINE TERRY: I'm Lorraine Terry. And I'm way too old for reproduction. But I've got children and granddaughters. And I cannot believe that they're taking away a benefit we've had for 50 years.

KURTZLEBEN: Terry is 86 and remembers well what life was like before Roe.

TERRY: I lived on the first floor, where a woman in my apartment building couldn't carry a baby - tried to abort her own baby with knitting needles and died. She had two young children. So I saw that. I saw the pain that happens when you can't get an abortion when you need one.

KURTZLEBEN: All of which makes reelecting the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, really important to her.

TERRY: We have to get Evers in in the state of Wisconsin. I mean, that's our saving grace, that we - even if we have Republican legislators, that he can veto - has the veto power.

KURTZLEBEN: Wisconsin's legislative map is heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. That means many Democrats see Evers as their one chance to stop whatever laws the legislature might pass. Evers has also already taken some action. For example, he announced he would give clemency to abortion providers punished under the state's pre-Roe ban.

That matters to Hiroshi Kanno, who came out to see Evers speak in Portage.

HIROSHI KANNO: If he doesn't get reelected, the clemency is meaningless for health providers. And that's why I'm going to work extra hard for him. I have six daughters, and one of them has had problems. And if you don't have that access, who knows what'll happen, you know?

KURTZLEBEN: And Evers continues to be emphatic about the importance of abortion rights, even though a lot of voters are focused on the economy.

TONY EVERS: We can walk and chew gum at the same time, but I can tell you that when we start taking away rights from people, that does transcend inflation. You know, inflation is important. We got to take care of it. But when you're dealing with people's lives, that's really important.

KURTZLEBEN: In Wisconsin's Senate race, the vibe is different, but similar. Different because one senator doesn't have the policy influence a governor does. Similar because in both cases, an electoral win means at best only modest or potential wins for abortion rights. A Senate win in Wisconsin wouldn't mean codifying Roe unless Democrats not only controlled the Senate but had 51 Democratic votes to overturn the filibuster.

Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes is a leading Democratic candidate for Senate.

MANDELA BARNES: I always tell people, yeah, of course I'll be one vote. And that's why we need 51 votes. And we don't get to 51 if we don't start somewhere. And getting Ron Johnson out of the way is the key to getting us closer to 51 votes to codify the right to choose into law by getting rid of the filibuster.

KURTZLEBEN: Overturning the filibuster to protect abortion rights was a key part of the pitch that a Barnes door knocker made that day. Voter Joelle Beth Timm said the Dobbs decision would weigh heavily on her vote.

JOELLE BETH TIMM: I'm pretty angry. And, you know, I have some T-shirts that say mind your own uterus. So they're getting a lot of wear recently. So, yeah, it's absolutely an issue. Quite frankly, it's probably the No. 1 issue that I voted on in my life.

KURTZLEBEN: Many Democrats, like Timm, are furious at the Supreme Court. And many also are angry at party leaders like Joe Biden, believing that they haven't fought hard enough for abortion rights over the years. Back at the Evers event, Dick Baker, chair of the Columbia County Democrats, pushed back against that frustration.

DICK BAKER: We're working behind the scenes with our candidates. And maybe we're often accused of being too nice, but I'd rather be too nice than the alternative.

KURTZLEBEN: But then there was also Ann Groves Lloyd, the mayor of Lodi, a town of 3,000. She's much more upset with the party.

ANN GROVES LLOYD: I want the filibuster gone. You know damn well, if the midterms swing the other way, the filibuster will be gone in a heartbeat. I guess part of me just doesn't want us to be so nice anymore about what we're doing.

KURTZLEBEN: A big challenge for Democrats this fall is convincing outraged voters it's worth it to vote for them, even if they don't have a certain fix to protect abortion rights.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Portage, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.